Guilt: Is it Getting in the Way of Your Self-Care?

When Do We Usually Feel Guilty? When:

We're not feeling ok about who we are.

We're not feeling ok about the choices we're making.

We haven't met our own expectations.

We haven't met the expectations (real or imagined) of someone else or society at large.

How Does Guilt Affect Your Self-Care?

Guilt can come out in a number of ways, hurting yourself or others around you. Guilt can lead to low self-esteem or self-hatred, which can then lead to self-sabotage or even self-abuse. Guilt can also lead to lashing out at others and constantly finding fault with them.

Imagine you're all set to leave the house for your personal training appointment at the gym. A simple "look" from one of your children could impart enough guilt to lead you to the phone, instead, to cancel your appointment for self-care.

Upset with yourself for missing the appointment, you berate yourself all day about your lack of commitment and torment yourself with negative thinking.

Later that afternoon, the same child accidentally spills a glass of milk. How loving and forgiving might you be, based on the circumstances of the day?

Taking It To Your Self-Care Plan

There are going to be times when you'll want to pay attention to your guilty feelings, and there will be times when you want to let them go. Here's a guide for telling which is which, and some tips on how to do it.

Pay Attention, When:

1. You're feeling guilty about not completing something you decided to do.

For example, you set out to follow a stringent eating plan from a book and then neglected to follow all of the directions.

It's possible you haven't fully "bought in" to the idea that this is the best eating plan for you. Someone else you know tried it, and the author certainly seems convincing. But deep down you're not sure this is the plan for you.

If you're trying to do something ONLY to meet external expectations, your guilt may be telling you to find something that you wholeheartedly believe in.

Take a good look at what you're feeling guilty about not doing, and re-evaluate whether it's truly what you want to choose.

2. You're feeling guilty about something you did

For instance, you spoke unkindly to someone at work. Maybe that goes against the values that were instilled in you as you were growing up (the "golden rule"), or maybe it's a code of behaviour you've personally adopted. In either case, you haven't met your or society's expectations of how to behave.

You can begin to alleviate your feelings of guilt by correcting things with this person the very next time you see them. An apology would be great. Acting kindly every time you deal with them in the future is even better.

Apologizing and admitting you were wrong can be a difficult thing. And it's worth it.

Let It Go, When:

1. You're feeling guilty about choosing to do something for your own self-care.

I used the example earlier in the article, of feeling guilty about leaving your child to go to an exercise appointment.

Getting "selfish" is the best way to care for the others in your life. When you're feeling strong, confident, healthy, resilient and relaxed, you're more efficient, productive, creative and fun!

When this type of guilt gets in your way, tell yourself something encouraging about how this self-care is going to positively impact your whole family and everyone else you're in contact with.

2. You're feeling guilty about not meeting your own expectations

For example, it's March and you wonder what's become of your New Year's Resolutions.

Guilt is not a good motivator for change. Accepting ourselves for who we are and changing from there is the healthiest and most effective starting point for self-improvement. When you can believe you're GOOD ENOUGH as you are, you can truly begin to grow and change.

Having expectations that are too high or otherwise unrealistic will generally lead to disappointment. This is revealed in two ways - as guilt when we don't meet our expectations, or as judgment when other people don't meet our expectations.

3. You're feeling guilty because you haven't met the expectations you think other people have of you.

You have a work assignment to finish two reports before the weekend. You work diligently and finish them right before 5:00, meaning that your boss needs to stay late in order to check them over.

You're racked with guilt thinking about the extra work you've caused and what your boss must be thinking of you.

Take a breath. First of all, you have absolutely no control over what someone thinks of you. You did your best and fulfilled your assignment, so you have nothing to feel guilty about. Second, you're probably wrong in what you're imagining. Maybe your boss came in late and was planning to leave late as well. Maybe your boss is so pleased that the reports are done that you'll be receiving a bonus Monday morning.

So back up and try not to let your mind-reading lead to guilty feelings. In fact, since most of us are probably not doing such a great job of it, we might as well give up on the mind-reading altogether.

Saying yes to ourselves and our self-care often means saying no to people, events and situations in our life and that can bring guilt.

The more time we spend feeling guilty, the less self-care we're giving to ourselves. If we're letting someone else's words, actions or non-verbal messages make us feel guilty, we're letting THEM take away our self-care.

You can choose what to do when guilt comes up. Unfortunately, many of us choose to do nothing, "wallowing" in the guilt and letting it torment us; we second-guess our choices.

What I hope I've shown you in this article are the choices you CAN make: to re-evaluate what you're doing, make amends if you truly believe you were wrong, affirm to yourself that your self-care is more important than the guilt, or let the guilt go. Which will you choose?

(c) Copyright Linda Dessau, 2005.

Linda Dessau, the Self-Care Coach, is the author of "The Everyday Self-Care Workbook". To find out more about the book, or to receive her free monthly newsletter, "Genuine Self-Care", visit

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